A Forest Hymn | Study Guide

William Cullen Bryant

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William Cullen Bryant | Biography


Early Life and Influences

William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794 in Massachusetts. Bryant was a 19th-century American poet. Bryant's personality was shaped through his early experiences, especially his time at school and time spent wandering the fields and forests. These experiences colored his writing in later life. His family was forced to move in with his mother's family due to financial misfortune. They were able to build onto the main home, but the constant tension between households contributed to Bryant's guarded and reserved personality. He wrote letters as a grown man stating that his childhood was not a happy one and that the farm chores as well as the harsh discipline were difficult. One of his only escapes was his schooling, and the others were the local forests and fields. A study of the natural world became his passion.

Bryant often sneaked away from the family farm and took refuge in the nearby forest. Many literary critics agree that these early experiences gave rise to his poem, "A Forest Hymn." Bryant kept a field diary and made observations of the plants and animals. This social isolation fostered his keen curiosity about the natural world.

The two people who influenced Bryant the most were his grandfather and his father. His grandfather was a resolute and devout man. Ebenezer Snell (1801–76) held early morning devotionals for the entire household. The hymns sung at these times introduced young Bryant to meter and poetry and fostered his love for language and writing. Bryant was a sickly child and was vulnerable to sermons relating to death and fear. These themes are evident in many of his works. The other influence in his life was his father Peter Bryant (1767–1820). His father considered himself a progressive and made it his ambition to enter into high society. Peter Bryant entered into several failed business endeavors in an attempt to better the family's fortunes. These poor choices caused financial distress to the family. The elder Bryant was a frustrated poet himself, and he encouraged his son's first attempts at poetry. He did so even when young Bryant's grandfather may have objected.

Early Education

At just 13 years old, Bryant was already considered a poet prodigy. The enthusiastic reception of his work motivated Bryant's father to put his son through school. Bryant entered Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but he found himself surrounded by students who did not care for education. He quickly became discouraged and withdrew. He returned to his family's farm and spent the next year in private tutelage so that he might apply to Yale. The family's finances could not handle the cost, and Bryant was sent to a nearby law school instead. Bryant was a dutiful son, and at 17 he set out to try to meet his family's expectations. He became a lawyer to write verse in his spare time. He wrote his poem "Thanatopsis" in 1817. This poem established his standing as a poet. It would contribute to transcendentalism and influence the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Typhus swept through America in 1813. It was an illness transmitted by the bite of a flea, tick, or chigger, and many people close to Bryant became ill and died during this epidemic. The event had a significant impact on Bryant's work. He wrote his first funeral poem for his best friend's wife. His grandfather succumbed to Typhus during this time. His grandfather's death caused Bryant to consider his own mortality and the nature of religion. He did not wholly embrace his grandfather's notion of a fearful and domineering God. Bryant embraced the ideas of the Unitarians. This belief system places great significance on man's connection to nature and the world around him. Bryant's nature poems reflect that belief. His father was his closest companion for many years but died in 1820. His father's death was felt deeply by Bryant, and some of his most stirring poetry comes from this period. The poem he wrote while in mourning for his father is called "Hymn to Death." It would be published more than a decade later in 1831.

Adult Life and Influences

A year after his father's death, Bryant married but continued to financially support his mother, grandmother, and siblings. Bryant never stopped writing poems and submitting them to various publishers and newspapers. He did this even though he continued to practice law and to hold public office. Many of his well-known works were produced during this time, including "To a Waterfowl," "The Rivulet," and "Consumption." He resigned from his position in a law firm after one of the cases he presided over was overturned.

He moved his family to New York so that he might start his literary career in earnest. He became an editor for the New York Evening Post, which was founded originally by the politician Alexander Hamilton. Bryant found himself in the middle of a cultural renaissance and was ecstatic. A publishing house supported his literary efforts and he became the richest poet in American history. Until this time only Benjamin Franklin, one of America's founding fathers, had been able to support himself solely through his writing. Franklin had done so with the popular pamphlet Poor Richard's Almanac (1732). Other notable poets and literary greats alive and working in America at the same time included Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Time at the New York Evening Post

Bryant was an editor for the New York Evening Post for more than 50 years. He leveraged his position to help establish many cultural innovations in New York, including the Museum of Art and Central Park. New York City named a park after him in 1884. He received the title of America's Poet Laureate in 1871.

Bryant passed away after suffering a stroke on June 12, 1878, and was given a funeral normally reserved for heads of state. This was contrary to his last wishes, but he had so many fans and supporters it was deemed necessary to have a large funeral. His body traveled by train to Roslyn, Long Island, with stops along the way so that his fellow countrymen could pay their respects.

Many of Bryant's poems have fallen out of popularity, but "A Forest Hymn" and "Thanatopsis" are still studied. These poems are important for their vision into the culture and the mind of the era. They offer excellent examples of American romanticism as an art form. He brought into being a new American style that featured informal language and a celebration of nature.

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